Do It Different: A Letter to my Son

December 4, 2014

Dear Son (and this is a long one),

I did something recently that I would not have done a few years ago. I stepped into the fray of controversy. You see, this past August, a kid was killed. Shot to death by a police officer. He was unarmed. And the way in which events occurred caused many people, not simply around this country but around the world, to raise their eyebrows. The kid did some things that were very wrong. But the fact that death was his apparent punishment for mistakes he made is questionable at best.

Then the hopes of a trial where questions could have been asked and answered were dashed when a grand jury failed to indict this officer on any charge. I’m not convinced that the charge should have been murder, but I do think there should have been a charge. Yet that hope was destroyed when a grand jury refused to send it to trial. Of course, now the news is that the people who carried the responsibility with prosecuting the case and getting it sent to trial were possibly out of bounds ethically. That they may have misled the jury in order to not get a trial.

So, the country erupted into pain and anger. There were riots where this boy had been killed and many people were harmed by that. The thing is: it appears many people were more concerned about the riots than about the injustices of a system gone wrong. The riots were and are grievous- though protesting peaceably is encouraged- but it seemed many of your parents friends and acquaintances were more focused on how bad those riots were than on the reason those riots happened. This is a problem; one you will run up against early in your life.

Then yesterday. Yesterday, another grand jury decided to not indict another police officer who choked a man to death… on camera. The coroner even named it a homicide. Everything about the situation demanded a trial. And he was not indicted. And that man who died? A black man. Another terrible injustice.

One day, you will learn of the long and sordid history of racial prejudice in this country. Your daddy and I- and perhaps your school, though know their teaching will be incomplete- will try to tell you about how these matters happened and why and why it is important for us to know such things. But we hope to go beyond just the facts of history. We hope to move you into seeing and knowing the very systems and constructs that are still active today in our country, forcing many to live within the demands of an evil part of our culture that values some lives over others.

All that history rides in these situations, and it is foolish to pretend otherwise. To ignore the contexts is to disconnect ourselves from the ongoing story of our existence. Disconnection from larger narratives is popular these days, but it is dangerous. This teen who laid dead in the street for hours with six bullet wounds, the father who’s last words were “I can’t breathe”… both are added to the names of many black men (and boys, yes boys) who have been killed mercilessly and rashly by police officers or wanna-be police officers in recent years. And it is grievous. Outrageous. I will tell you many times in your life to put your outrage away- don’t waste it on silly things. But this? I hope you are outraged. I hope that as you learn these terrible things from 400 years ago to the very present that you are sick at heart. That you are frustrated. That you are angry. That you see how completely and terribly wrong these systems are that benefit lighter skinned people and dismiss others with cruel indifference.

I hope you are frustrated enough to be part of a solution and refuse to continue in the process that so many of us have walked in. And I hope you learn it sooner than me.

Let me tell you a story:

Long ago, when I was young, I was never taught that my faith, my discipleship, took me beyond a presumed private relationship with Jesus and asked me to step out into the world, and through the help and guidance of God, be part of his work at restoring all things, including systems of oppression. My community of faith did not teach me about right racial relationships. It did not address oppression. It did not speak to systemic evils that consistently work against large portions of humanity. It did teach me a great deal about the four spiritual laws, the catechism, and the plan of salvation. I am grateful to that faith community for those particular gifts. It taught me a great deal of personal morals, but it did not teach me that being a moral person also extends to the way in which I address our culture and how its systems function or dysfunction.

But as I grew up, in my late teens, I began to read the Bible closer. I read the words of the prophets and the words of Jesus himself, and I began to ask: “What if Jesus really meant what we said about the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed?”

Then something happened.

A man I knew was accused of something. Falsely. As I prayed through the situation, I felt compelled to speak on behalf of this man. To speak to what I believed and knew. And so I did, in my “youthful-not-really-sure-of-my-critical-thinking-skills-and-not-having-eloquent-speaking-gifts-yet” kind of way. It was scary and hard and I shook. Then there was this terrible moment. This moment when someone close to me, someone who should have been guiding me into these deeper faith, someone who should have supported me said this about me to someone else: “Karen just adds fuel to the fire. That’s why no one will ever like her.” This person at the time was so broken, so trapped in a personal struggle with people-pleasing and fear of speaking out against things that hurt others. But I was too young to put those words into that context. And so those comments sunk into my soul and settled down to rot.

And rot they did. I began to hide. I began to hide the flourishing passion for the marginalized, which was fueled by the words of a Bible I loved. I hid behind intellect and my incessant need to appear neutral. I began to hide behind the fear that if I dared to step up and speak into a situation of injustice I would be disliked, or hated, or insulted. That my future congregations would fire me for doing what I believed Jesus was calling me to do, because that can happen, son. Sad, I know. I began to hide.

For long years from my late teens into my late 20s, I hid.

But during that time, something else began to happen to me. First, I met friends in seminary who were passionate about righting the inherent wrongs of our culture so that all people might thrive. Then, I met professors who stood in the face of systemic oppression and spoke truth and were often run over by that evil, but would get up and do it all over again because the gospel compelled them so. And then, as a pastor, suddenly there were dark skinned faces around my table, or on my couch, or looking back at me during a sermon. And those darker skinned friends shared their stories- being watched closer than their white friends when they all entered a store, being detained while walking in their own neighborhood, seeing college students in painted faces pretending to be them in an attempt to be funny on Halloween, experiencing the assumption that they were stupid, menancing or uneducated simply because of the color of their skin. As we grew together, they shared with me their fears of having children in a world that would treat them the same way they had been treated. They shared the deep worry that their child would make the same mistake as their lighter skinned counterparts, but their child would be more harshly punished… even killed. They shared that they had already been told by their parents how they had to act differently than others simply, how to dress differently, how to make sure they were always aware of their surroundings, simply because it could easily become a life and death situation for them, and they had put that conversation into their pockets to pull out when they were parents too.

Those entrusted tears and tremblings from friends, those fellow seminarians, those professors who spoke truth to corruption began the process of crumbling my fear. But you, dear one, you completed that process. When you were born, I looked at you and realized that as terrifying as it is to love a child, it is all the more terrifying to for parents of a darker skinned child in this country.

This is not the world I wanted you to have.

The world you are growing up is not like the one I grew up in. I have refrained from saying that a long time because I worried that I sounded like the generations before me that would look back on their lives and compare those lives to youth today only for the sake of nostagia. But I am not speaking out of nostagia. The post 9/11 world is radically altered. While violence and terribleness has existed throughout history, while oppression and hatred have always been in the fabric of all generations, there is such accessibility to these terrible things in a way that is unprecedented. There is less of a filter through which we process things. We lost any sense of civility, and sadly, many in the Church lead the way in a lack of civility. We are overloaded with violence, with aggression, with fear, and with information.

And I am sorry. I am sorry that I didn’t learn earlier to more fully live into my discipleship. I am not foolish enough to believe that had I learned earlier things would be all better, but I do wonder about whether the discipleship of those I loved in the pews and in the youth rooms would be more rich and complete. I am sorry that this world is what you will have to contend with. I know in my heart that you were born at the exact time God would have you live, but it grieves me what you will have to witness.

And one thing that you will have to face is the incredible injustices of this world, including in the area of race. But you must engage it. You must engage it where I did not, but am now. You must do better than I did. You must learn early that there are histories and systems that are used to benefit some and not others. That they benefit you and not others. You must learn that there are people who are considered of lesser value than others. You must learn then that this is true- not to make you guilty, but to make you aware and honest. Too many people today refuse to be honest about their privilege. Too many Christians confuse responsibility with culpability and bristle when they told they have privilege. But having privilege is not a sin. What we do or don’t do with our privilege in this society is where sin may enter. Be different than that. Don’t confuse guilt and privilege and don’t deny either.

You must learn that this is not the way of God. That the very gospel of Jesus is marred by our complicity in these matters. That you cannot pray “On earth as it is in heaven” and continue in indifference to the privileges you have that others don’t. You must learn to separate truth from lies in a world where everyone will tell you their ideas are true, which is a lie. You must learn that the Jesus who loves you, the Jesus I hope you choose to follow, stands with the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed. And you need to be with him.

You must also learn for personal reasons, because one day, God willing, our table will host a fourth face. A brother. And we are completely open to the possibility that his skin will be darker hued than yours. We want you to know these hard things, these terrible things, because we want you to notice that he will have to walk through this world differently than you will have to. We want you see that he will have to contend with things you will never have to. And we want you to do it different than those before you, to work for what is right- not in some “superhero, come to save the day, pat me on the back for helping” kind of way… that’s not at all glorifying to God and one of the hardest parts of confronting our privilege is this attitude. But we want you to learn to use your voice, your privileges, in order to seek out together what living in the Kingdom of Jesus is like.

You will have people hate you for this, son. Some of them will claim the same Jesus you do. That’s a pain all its own, son. Be prepared for that pain as best you can. Just last week, someone who was once dear to me, who holds a piece of my faith story, a man who is a father like the man laying on the ground slowly feeling his lungs crushed by the nook of an elbow, this friend hurled insults in order to not engage the real issues. You will have people hurt you. They will break your heart. If you go into ministry like me, you will wonder in these times if your ministry has had any effectiveness at all. That’s very hard.

And in these experiences, you must learn something else. You must learn to forgive. You must learn to forgive because that is the way of your Jesus, that is the way of the Peaceable Kingdom. I want to you be wise, to stand bravely for what is right and good and true. I want you to be careful who you give your faith to. I want you to know there may be edges to friendships that refuse to grow deeper. But I want you to be forgiving. You must learn to forgive so that if those fellow Christians arrive to this place where their discipleship calls them, you will be able to welcome them gladly.

I learned too late that it is better to act in your faith for something and fall short than to do nothing. You can easily repent of falling short while acting for your neighbors good, but it’s harder to repent for having never started. Just look around you, you’ll see that easily.

But I want for you to know sooner than I what it means to follow Christ in every way. And to stand, arm in arm with anyone, regardless of color or tradition or background or story, who seeks to live out the way of Jesus, with equal dignity and strength…

It is Advent, little one. A season where we stretch ourselves in two directions- forward and backward. Backward as we remember the Christ who appeared in the skin and smell of a newborn, screaming at the night sky to the lullabies of angel choirs. Forward as we look for the coming Christ, who will arrive with the fullness of the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus came to a world darkened by these corruptions. Darkened by the terribleness of oppression. He entered into a world that hid behind the wrappings of celebration, but inside was rotting to the core. A world where people destroyed others unmercifully. Where the religious turned a blind eye and sometime encouraged a system of oppression. He came into a world where systems were sinful as well as the people in them.

He came to this world. As you see wipe my tears throughout the day, know that I am feeling Advent this year in a brand new way. Behind the tree with lights and colored balls, behind the festive music, this Advent speaks to the reality of what Jesus chose to do. To come to us- broken in every way, some of us in denial of our brokenness. To come to us- ugly and mean and nasty and hateful. To come to us- yes, even us… to make things right.

So, my prayer today, little one is simply this: Come back, Lord Jesus. Come back to this world of terrible, horrible, awful things. Come back to this world where pain seeps through every crack in our facade. Come back to us even as we turn blind eyes to the systems that oppress others. Come back to this world where wrong is called right, where even your followers are complicit in sin. Come back, Lord Jesus. Teach us to repent and be free. Make things right.

Make this right.


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